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Van Til’s Concrete Universal

Laurence O’Donnell, III, a Cornelius Van Til scholar and critic, has labeled Van Til’s trinitarian theology “idiosyncratic.” He made this remark with respect to Van Til’s conception of the trinity as a concrete universal. In response to O’Donnell’s ascription of idiosyncrasy, I would like to briefly exposit Van Til trinitarian thought and perhaps throw light on its value.

The idea of a concrete universal is a complex concept that originated with the founder of absolute idealism, G. W. F. Hegel (1770–1831). Historian of philosophy Robert Stern defines a concrete universal as a property that all individuals have whereby they are “related with one another in a system of mutual interdependence.” Stated simply, a concrete universal is something that connects everything together and thereby gives everything meaning. The absolute idealists identified the Absolute—an all-inclusive mental subject—as their concrete universal.

Van Til was highly critical of absolute idealism. As I alluded to in a previous post, Van Til thought that the absolute idealists’ neglect of the Christian God and his revelation led them to a plethora of philosophical dilemmas for which “there is no answer . . . from a non-Christian point of view.” For example, absolute idealists posited the existence of both an Absolute and a world driven by chance, but they never sufficiently explained how these two can coexist. On the one hand, the world of chance seems like it should reduce the absoluteness of the Absolute. On the other hand, the Absolute seems like it should absorb the world of chance. Absolute idealism’s unifying element (the Absolute) appears to swallow its plural element (the world of chance), and vice versa.

In contrast to absolute idealism, Van Til held on the basis of Scripture that the triune God is the true concrete universal, in time and in eternity.

God is the concrete universal in eternity by virtue of his triune ontology, i.e., via his nature as the self-existent God in three persons. Father, Son, and Spirit fully interpenetrate one another, and therefore share in the same divine essence. The one divine essence does not erode the distinctions between the three divine persons, and the distinctions between the three divine persons do not divide the one divine essence. Father, Son, and Sprit are “one God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory” (Shorter Catechism, Q&A 6).

God is the concrete universal in time by virtue of his triune economy, i.e., via his free eternal decree as worked out by his temporal acts of creation, providence, and redemption. When the triune God created, he gave each object a distinct nature and a covenantal relationship with himself and the rest of the world. God did not provide objects with these natures and relations in abstraction from his design for the rest of history. Rather, objects are created, preserved, and governed by the wise power of God in expectation of his final purpose for the world in Jesus Christ.

Van Til’s Reformed method of philosophy successfully identified a concrete universal that is able to connect everything together and thereby give everything meaning—namely, the triune God in his ontology and economy. Unlike in absolute idealism, there is an equal ultimacy between the unifying elements (the divine essence/covenantal eschatology) and the plural elements (the divine persons/individual created objects) in Van Til’s theory of reality.

Furthermore, Van Til thought that his Christian theory of reality implied a Christian theory of knowledge. Since God created and controls all things according to his triune counsel, we must submit all our thinking to him and his eschatological plan, as culminated in Jesus Christ. Thus, Van Til insisted that Christians must think concretely; we must always remain mindful of the triune God’s great plan of heavenly redemption.

It seems to me that Van Til’s trinitarian understanding of the concrete universal is a promising philosophical integration of Reformed theology. Even if his trinitarian formulations are idiosyncratic in the sense of being personal and unique in some limited respects, they are nonetheless worthy of deep consideration and admiration. In my mind, Van Til’s interaction with absolute idealism’s search for a concrete universal is a wonderful example of how to address philosophical questions with Reformed theological answers.

Sources— The quote in the first paragraph is from Laurence R. O’Donnell, III, “Kees Van Til als Nederlandse-Amerikaanse, Neo-Calvinistisch-Presbyteriaan Apologeticus: An Analysis of Cornelius Van Til’s Presupposition of Reformed Dogmatics with Special Reference to Herman Bavinck’s Gereformeerde Dogmatiek” (Th.M. Thesis, Calvin Theological Seminary, 2011), 157–158. The quote in the second paragraph is from Robert Stern, “Hegel, British Idealism, and the Curious Case of the Concrete Universal,” British Journal for the History of Philosophy 15, no. 1 (2007): 122. The quote in the third paragraph is from Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (ed. K. Scott Oliphint; 4th ed.; Phillipsburg, N. J.: P&R, 2008), 49. I also consulted Van Til’s Common Grace and the Gospel (Nutley, N. J.: P&R, 1977) and his “My Credo” (in Jerusalem and Athens: Critical Discussions on the Philosophy and Apologetics of Cornelius Van Til [ed. E. R. Geehan; Phillipsburg, N. J.: P&R, 1980]).


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